Deuteronomy: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
- Tigay, Jeffrey. Deuteronomy (JPS Torah Commentary). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
- Von Rad, Gerhard. Deuteronomy. SCM Press, 1966.
- Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy 1-11 (Anchor Bible). New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Table of Contents
These are the words (1), a note about the length of the journey (2), the timing of Moses’ speech (3-4), the site repeated (5), the command to leave Horeb/Sinai (6-8), Moses’ need for leadership structure (9-10).
Where did Moses deliver these speeches? This is a case where our English translations really matter. Most take all of vs. 1 as a sentence and have Moses speaking from a circuit of places beginning with the Suph (near the Sea of Reeds) and ending at Dizahab. But the JPS may have it right, ending the first sentence after “beyond the Jordan.” In this understanding, Moses’ speeches were delivered simply “beyond the Jordan” and what follows is a new sentence describing the route Israel took from the Suph to Dizahab. Some ancient rabbis assumed Moses gave all these speeches twice, once at various sites along the journey and then a second time near the Jordan river. It is apparent that Moses could not have written vs. 1-5 since the author is someone speaking from the land of Israel who refers to the place as “beyond the Jordan.” Moses, of course, was never in Israel. Vss. 3-4 suggest that Moses gave all these speeches on one day and 32:48 completes this theme of a single day (“that very day Adonai spoke to Moses”). Vss. 6-8 add something new to the story of Israel, giving words from God directing Israel to leave Mt. Horeb (Sinai). The previous telling of Israel’s departure from the mountain did not include these words (see Numb 10:13). Amorite is the name often used for the people of the hill country while Canaanites usually designates people on the coast and the lowlands. In vs. 8, God relates his promise of giving the land to Israel to his earlier promise to give it to the patriarchs. Vss. 9-10 are the beginning of a new sub-section (vss. 9-18) about the appointment of judges. Deuteronomy’s account of the appointment of judges appears to combine elements of Numbers 11 and Exodus 18 into one harmonized version (see comments that follow). We begin to see a pattern in the way Deuteronomy retells the stories of Israel. Chapters 1-3 will organize the wanderings of Israel into seven stages, drawn from material in Exodus and Numbers, but will do so with some key differences and discrepancies compared to other versions.
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Appointing leaders and officials to govern (11-18), Israel just before the sin of the scouts (19-21).
In Exodus 18:17-26, during the year when Israel was camped at Sinai, Jethro counseled Moses to choose chiefs over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens who were able, honest, and God-fearing. A second story about selecting leaders to help Moses is found in Numbers 11:16-30 right after they left Sinai. The relationship of the two leadership stories to each other and to this third account, in Deuteronomy 1:11-18 is difficult to determine. It is difficult to understand, for example, how Moses can complain in Numbers 11:14 that he is alone bearing the burden of the people when he has, according to Exodus 18:17-26, already appointed numerous chiefs to rule with him. The Exodus and Numbers accounts give signs of being different events or divergent accounts of the same event. Numbers is about seventy leaders who will become endowed with the same spirit that is on Moses. The rabbis read these seventy as the high court, the predecessor of the Sanhedrin. Exodus is about chiefs over all the divisions of Israel, down even to the tens. It is possible to understand the Exodus leadership story to be about a basic structure of chiefs for Israel and the Numbers story to be about higher leaders, who more closely share spiritual insight and rule with Moses. If so, which of these two stories is Deuteronomy 1:11-18 about? It sounds more like the Exodus account. Yet there are two primary differences between what Deuteronomy says and what Exodus said, which could be a natural development of ancient stories being told from multiple perspectives with different emphases. In Exodus Moses selected the chiefs and in Deuteronomy the people chose them. In Exodus the qualifications were “able men . . . who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe” while in Deuteronomy the qualifications are “wise, understanding, and experienced men” (note that the Hebrew may literally mean “wise, understanding, and well-known” rather than “experienced”). These discrepancies can potentially be harmonized (which is one way to approach understanding) or we can read them as differing perspectives on a single event (another approach, equally possible). Meanwhile, the emphasis in Deuteronomy on wisdom is something that will be repeated over and over again. Christopher Wright, in his commentary, observes something crucial: the story about choosing leadership is placed in the introduction to Deuteronomy because it is central to the purpose of the book. Deuteronomy, he says, “is a theology and an ethos of leadership in the people of God that has both spiritual dimensions and social applications.” In other words, we see here two emphases of Deuteronomy that will be vital in the book: spiritual leadership and wisdom.
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The good beginning of the scouting party (22-25), Israel’s lack of faith in God’s promise (26-28), Moses contrasts God’s promise and Presence with the people’s faithlessness (29-33), a combined account of those who will be barred from entering and those who will enter (34-38).
This is the same story as in Numbers 13-14, but with some differences. This retelling is shorter, with a clearer message about faithlessness. It also differs from the Numbers version concerning the motive of the spies’ mission, one of many discrepancies between Deuteronomy and Exodus/Numbers. In Numbers, God commanded the scouting party; in Deuteronomy the people suggest it and Moses approves. The Deuteronomy account is condensed, not naming the spies, giving only at first a short and positive report from them, and skipping over Moses’ intercession when God wanted to destroy Israel. In Deuteronomy Moses complains that God was angry with him because of the people’s faithlessness and excluded him from the land, another clear discrepancy with Numbers 20:10-13 in which Moses’ own sin resulted in his exclusion. The Deuteronomy account assumes the reader already knows the story, not mentioning, for example, that Joshua was one of the spies even though he is named as one of the only two who will be allowed to enter the land. Therefore, the differences in perspective in Deuteronomy seem to be here to present an alternative view, starting with the assumption that readers already know the other version. This version is more positive about Moses and it is true that Moses’ sin and his exclusion from the land was partially the result of the people’s complaining. This version is more positive about the value of the scouting mission. Even if the people requested the scouting mission out of fear, God may have also commanded it after it was requested. Fearfulness may have preceded the command, but in the spy mission God did have something to show the people about the land. In the larger picture, Deuteronomy’s account of the wilderness wanderings is simpler. The message is simply about faith and obedience. Moses’ speech urges faith in God who will fight to give the promise and who has raised Israel so far like a son. The people’s refusal to trust in Adonai is like a betrayal of a father by a son. Daniel Block (NIV Application Commentary) notes several results of faithlessness: it comes from faulty vision, it results in continued distortion of reality, it suppresses the truth, and it devalues God. The people lack wisdom because they should see what God has done so far and by this knowledge of the past believe for the future. Knowledge of God’s ways and trust in him during crises of historical change are keys to success in this covenant relationship.
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DEUTERONOMY 1:39 – 2:1
Only the second generation will enter (39), turn and go back to the desert (40), the people try conquest against God’s command (41-42), flouting God’s command, they are defeated (43-45), the defeated people obey at last and return to the desert (1:46-2:1).
There is an irony about Deuteronomy 1:39, since the parents had said the children would die in the desert. But now Moses is recounting these words to those very children, who are now grown up, as they camp poised on the edge of Canaan. Far from the doom their parents foretold, the children are set to inherit the promise that could have been for their fathers and mothers. In this sub-section of Deuteronomy we find a retelling of Numbers 13-14 and 20. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to harmonize Deuteronomy and Numbers regarding the timing and places of Israel’s wilderness wandering. Were they at Kadesh once or twice? Were they at Kadesh most of the forty years or only for two brief periods of time? The standard approach is to assume that different sources have left the itinerary of the Israelites with discrepancies. It is even difficult to understand Deuteronomy 1:46-2:1 taken on its own. See the EXCURSUS below on the geography and timing of Deuteronomy 1:46-2:1. The message of the narrative is much simpler than the itinerary. After their breech with Adonai, in which they revealed their distrust of his promises, the Israelites made a tragic attempt to conquer without him. They found that their power is in God alone and were left to wander until the second generation, when God promised he would at last allow them to receive the promise.
EXCURSUS: The Timing and Geography of 1:46-2:1 — Does vs. 46 mean they remained at Kadesh a long time after being defeated? The Hebrew literally says, “you dwelt at Kadesh many days.” This idea does not fit with 2:14, where the longest portion of the wilderness period comes after Kadesh-barnea, not during their stay there. The JPS translation attempts to smooth this out in 1:46 by rendering it “after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time.” Furthermore, how could the people leave Kadesh on the way to the Sea of Reeds and yet be headed toward Seir (Edom, to the east of the land of Israel)? It seems “Sea of Reeds” may have been a term for more than one body of water, and in this case it refers to the Gulf of Eilat south from Kadesh. The road from Kadesh to the hill country of Seir (Edom) must have gone south to the Gulf of Eilat and then turned northeastward. It seems the “many days” at Kadesh was at the beginning of the wilderness period and was a much shorter time than afterward, when Israel wandered thirty-eight more years near the boundaries of Seir (2:14). In the Deuteronomy account, then, Kadesh was only a stop in the journey, not a place where Israel lived for a long time.
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Journey through Seir, land of the Edomites (2-8); journey through Moab (9-25); beginnings of war with Sihon the Amorite (26-30).
In the background of this narrative we find the idea of Adonai’s kingship over all the nations. The relationship between the nations is also important, with Israel and Edom going back to Jacob and Esau (the Edomites are traced back to Esau). God gave Edom a land. He imparted blessings and relationship to that nation so that Israel is warned not to make war. In a similar manner, Moab and Ammon are descendants of Lot. Because of the relationship of Israel to these neighboring peoples, God commands them to purchase provisions rather than make war. By contrast, Sihon the Amorite is a military threat and Adonai commands war against him. There are, as usual, some differences between the events described in Deuteronomy and the earlier version in Numbers. In Numbers 20:14-21, Edom refuses Israel passage and sends an army, which causes Israel to skirt around their territory. Deuteronomy says nothing about Edom’s lack of hospitality. In both accounts, however, we find the common element that Israel needed to purchase water rights and supplies while in the vicinity. With regard to Moab, the Deuteronomy account omits any reference to the conflict with Balak in the Balaam incident. What makes the Deuteronomy account unique? As Moshe Weinfeld says, it is a more patriotic version. That is, the reason for avoiding conflict with Edom and Moab in Deuteronomy is the kinship between the peoples. Deuteronomy discusses some details about the history of peoples in the area of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Vss. 10-12 describe how God had given Seir to Edom from the hand of earlier occupants. Likewise, vss. 20-23 describe God’s granting of territory to Moab and Ammon from earlier peoples who dwelt there. As Tigay notes, the implication is that God is settling nations and determining their place. As he has done for Edom (Esau), Moab (Lot), and Ammon (Lot), so he will do for Israel (Jacob). Vs. 14 establishes the timing in Deuteronomy’s version of the wilderness wandering: they cross into Moab from Edom in the fortieth year. War with Sihon the Amorite is described as necessary because he refused passage so that Adonai hardened his heart. As God has placed other peoples on their land, so he will place Israel.
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DEUTERONOMY 2:31 – 3:14
Defeating Sihon the Amorite king (2:31 – 3:1), defeating Og the Rephaimite (3:2-11), apportioning land to Reuben, Gad, and the Jair clan of Manasseh (3:12-14).
The Transjordan region (modern day Jordan) was not originally part of the promise of a territory to Abraham or to the Israelites when they come out of Egypt. Yet in Deuteronomy, its place in the territory of Israel seems already accepted as a fact. This is one of many subtle indicators that Deuteronomy is written at a later time (one theory being that the author is Baruch, secretary of the prophet Jeremiah). Deuteronomy skips over the fact that the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites requested a variance in God’s plan to be given permission to settle here. This is in keeping with the tone of Deuteronomy as positive and patriotic. Thus Moses speaks in simple imperatives in vss. 24 and 31: “begin to take possession,” “begin to occupy that you might possess his [Sihon’s] land.” This retelling of the Transjordan story from Numbers also emphasizes a few new details, such as the nature of King Og as a giant and the idea that the conquered cities and people were placed “under the doom.” The concept of the doom (a.k.a. the ban, as in devoted to destruction, or cherem) is mentioned in a few texts prior to this one but is not stated as a law when conquering Canaanites until Deuteronomy 7:2 and especially 20:16-17. Sihon and Og are not rulers of peoples in the land itself, upon whom the doom is commanded, but perhaps they were devoted to destruction because of their aggression against Israel. The story of Og as a giant and the mention of his bed (over thirteen feet long) is new material not included in the first account from Numbers 21:33 and following. Deuteronomy presents this story as if Moses is telling it to the second generation. And Moses presents it as a total victory, an occupation of a new land, and a foreshadowing of the greater settlement coming for the rest of the tribes after his death.
———— Excursus: Deuteronomy and Violence
Deuteronomy, which I believe was written either right before or right after the kingdom of Judah went into exile, presents a positive and patriotic view of the way Israel came to possess Canaan and the Transjordan. Baruch, secretary of Jeremiah, is concerned with the idea that Israel is still God’s people and can return to that land.
The history of violence and conquest is brushed over as the result of divine will. If we object to the violence in the narrative, the ancient theologian might argue that war was inevitable but Adonai gave his people a place in the world. In a world of violence, even the chosen people take their land with it.
Accounts of violence in the Bible are not the final word. The usual customs of war find themselves mediated by regulation and a movement toward justice in the later parts of Deuteronomy. Still the utterly inexcusable command to place a people under the doom (the ban, cherem, in Hebrew) is a legacy of the Bible which we have to protest, even as Moses and the prophets would at times argue with God. How can God use people as his agents to judge another people with extinction?
The prophets themselves decry violence as one of the great evils of the world. This is in conflict with some parts of Deuteronomy which give a patriotic view of that same violence. Human and divine ideas are mixed in the biblical record. As readers we are called on to find the divine ideas and believe in and implement them. One way to see God’s view of the matter is to take in the larger picture, over time, in all of the biblical literature. If we do so, we find some elements in Deuteronomy wanting, lacking the full weight of God’s revelation. These blind spots in Deuteronomy do not have to ruin the beautiful elements in this ancient book. We are called on to read with wisdom and to find what is good, where God is revealing his way with us.
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Apportioning land to the Machir clan of Manasseh, and to Gad and Reuben (15-17), the charge to the Transjordan tribes (18-20), a charge to Joshua (21-22).
Moses’ retelling of Israel’s wilderness story now turns to the tribes settling in the Transjordan (east of the Jordan river). The men of these Transjordan tribes would be required to act as shock troops, going before the rest of Israel into battle. They secured the privilege of settling their women, elderly, and children to the east with a promise to send their armed men help the other tribes settle in Canaan. This would mean being away from their wives and family for several years. Moses charges Joshua to believe in God’s power and his promise to deliver the land to the tribes. These early victories would help Joshua’s confidence in the victory and the vision of Israel settling and living out the Torah in a land of promise. Those who perhaps think of themselves as a slave people, refugees from Egypt, will become a settled people returning to the lands of the patriarchs.
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DEUTERONOMY 3:23 – 4:4
Moses pleads to enter the land with his people (23-25), God denies the plea and orders Moses to ascend Pisgah, see the land, and appoint Joshua (26-28), note about the place, Beth-Peor (3:29), observe the statutes and judgments (4:1), do not add to or subtract from the Deuteronomic Torah (2), reminder of God’s judgment concerning the Baal-Peor incident (3-4).
The personal tragedy of Moses (being barred from the land) is an important element of the story. God’s covenant is not about the authority of Moses and even prophets are subject to the King. Moses says that “no god in heaven or on the earth” can equal God’s power. This statement, similar to Exodus 15:11, might seem to grant the existence of pagan deities. Yet Psalm 89:6-13(5-12) indicate the more likely meaning: the council of angelic beings, the heavenly bodies, and the features of earth and sky, are all referred to as “gods” (Tigay). God is greater than everything we know to be powerful and majestic. Deuteronomy has a heightened monotheism, defining deity more strictly (see 4:35), and so the statement that no gods can equal Adonai’s power is an important building block of that theology. Some might consider other beings worthy of the name “gods,” but Deuteronomy objects, clarifying that God is in a class by himself, uniquely transcendent and omnipotent. Meanwhile, God refuses Moses’ request that he be allowed to enter Canaan. Nonetheless he gives Moses a boon, allowing him to see a panoramic view of the land. Beth-Peor is the home territory of Baal-Peor, a valley in Moab, the deity whom the Israelites sinned against God with. Here Moses will be buried (34:6). After relating this private encounter with God, Moses preaches the need for faithfulness and obedience in keeping the chukkim and mishpatim (statutes and judgments). In traditional interpretation these are the commandments which are rational and evident (judgments) as well as those which are purely by command without another reason, such as the dietary laws (statutes). The intention of 4:2 cannot be to forbid any further law-making (later in chapters 16 and 17 there will be provision for further lawmaking), but “do not add” must mean something like “do not permit what these laws forbid.” Tigay observes that statements such as this one are always followed by examples of idolatry and pagan practices. Thus, one is not to loosen a prohibition nor cease to practice the worship and ethical principles taught by Torah. Finally, Moses commends those who held fast to God (being close to God is called devekkut, clinging). An emotional nearness to God is considered to be a mark of righteousness, a powerful teaching with application to our daily lives.
—————- The text of Deuteronomy reaches some high points today. The patriotism of the parts we’ve read so far is one thing. But now we begin to get into the pathos of biblical religion. A favorite theme for me is devekkut (clinging), an emotional attachment to God. Also, Deuteronomy (and following its example, Second Isaiah) views God’s being as unique. There is no other. Whereas other texts are willing to call supernatural beings besides God “gods,” Deuteronomy sets up a trajectory to believe in one and only one. Who is he? The one greater than whom none exists. And this one, this singular deity, to him we should cling emotionally every day, says the text.
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The teachings are full of wisdom and worthy of being followed (5-8), remember the Sinai revelation (9-14), God did not appear in a form like an idol (15), do not make images of earthly or heavenly things (16-18), do not worship the stars and heavenly bodies (19), God is jealous as our story up to now has shown (20-24), if you turn your back you will be scattered, but God will not give up on you (25-31), has any nation had such a revelation? (32-40).
What do wisdom and Torah have to do with each other? Deuteronomy sees a relationship and, in fact, shares language with the book of Proverbs in some places. Moses here expresses admiration for the Torah, for its wisdom, and says the appeal to the people to give Adonai their hearts and allegiance is the epitome of intelligence and prudence. More than a mere collection of words, Torah is divine wisdom given to a community to be lived out in a relationship of covenantal love with God and each other. Moses’ speech continues. He notes that when God appeared on Horeb (Sinai), it was without any form like an idol. On the theory that Baruch, secretary of Jeremiah, is the author, and that the time of Deuteronomy’s writing is right before or after the exile, this statement about God’s appearance is a declaration: God is real. The defeat of the chosen people and seeming failure of the promises has come upon them, but in a historical narrative putting Torah words into the mouth of their founding prophet, Moses, the writer asserts that the beginning of the covenant was an act of God. God appeared. He appeared in a way that did not fit the norms for their culture and time. God is in some ways different from what we expect in a deity. And his covenant is just as real, not a mere idea, but a way of life that is about doing. God, as revealed in Torah, is not distant and unconcerned, but jealous and in close relationship with his people. Note that some strains of Judaism have gone astray here, believing in a wholly transcendent God, the philosopher’s God. Yet Deuteronomy emphasizes God is near, active, and Present. Moses uses the example of his own fall from grace to say that Israel must remain faithful. The writer has Moses foretell Israel’s failure (which is what is happening in the writer’s lifetime) and also specifically mention the exile and dispersion of the Jewish people. Did Moses ever actually say this or did the writer invent it? We cannot say. It very well could have been part of the tradition passed down that Moses foresaw the people failing in the covenant. More importantly Moses says God’s love and promise will not fail, even if the people do. It is like the love of God revealed in Messiah: “while we were still weak, at the right time, Messiah died for the ungodly” and “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8). God’s election of the Jewish people as the front line of his redeeming humanity started before Sinai, going back to Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs. The promise preceded the obligation. No other nation has had such revelation. The Torah is unique, unparalleled. It’s wisdom is eternal.
————— The wisdom of Torah is this: God’s love and promise are behind it. It is not a condition to be met, but a teaching to make us better. Its ways are not test we must pass. There is no test. God gave his love and promise a long time ago to Abraham. We are already accepted. Now let’s go live better.
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Appendix between discourses (41-43), summary and preparation for Moses’ second discourse (44-49).
This reading finishes off the first discourse (41-43) and introduces the second and longest discourse of Deuteronomy (4:44 – 28:69). The appendix in vss. 41-43 is about Moses appointing cities of refuge in the Transjordan where Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh would dwell. The intent is to show that he followed through with obedience to God’s instructions when the people were on the edge of conquering the land. The second discourse of Moses (4:44-28:69) will be the main teaching of the book. The preparation for the second discourse (44-49) repeats what was said in 1:1-5. The medieval Jewish commentator Abravanel says that this repetition was necessary since the whole of 1:6 – 4:40 has been a digression from the topic announced in 1:3 (Tigay). 4:44 at last announces that the exposition of the Torah (the Teaching) will begin. Even now, however, there will be a prelude before the recounting of laws which comes in 12:2 – 26:15. The second discourse happens “beyond the Jordan,” which once again shows Deuteronomy was compiled in the land of Israel sometime after the death of Moses. It is said to happen in the valley of Beth-peor, the place where Israel defeated Sihon of the Amorites.
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DEUTERONOMY 5:1-18 (21 in Chr Bibles)
Face to face at Horeb (1-5), the Ten Words (6-18).
Deuteronomy is not merely a list of commandments. The commandments are placed within a framework of teaching about covenant, love for God, attachment to God, and being doers as well as a hearers. Vs. 1 emphasizes doing, performing the good deeds consistent with justice and faithfulness. Vss. 2-3 emphasize to the second generation that the Sinai Covenant was not just with their parents, but all generations in Israel. Although many in the second generation had yet been born when Sinai happened, nonetheless in vss. 4-5 Moses says God was speaking “with you face to face.” The giving of the covenant at Sinai has affected all Jews, religious or not, for all time and it keeps altering Jewish destiny all the way until Messiah returns. The first part of the commandments recounted in Deuteronomy are the Ten Words (a.k.a., Ten Commandments or Decalogue), which form the foundation of all the teachings of Torah. They are called the Ten Words in 4:13 and 10:4, but there is not a clear and easy division of them into ten. Over time, three ways of dividing the commandments have prevailed. The common Jewish division begins differently than the Protestant one: (1) I am the Lord and (2) no other gods, no sculptured images. However, the JPS Commentary (Tigay) follows the divisions as enumerated in Philo, Josephus, and the Talmud (which is the same as the Protestant division): (1) no other gods and (2) no sculptured images. Gauging from Exodus 20:18-20, it would seem that God spoke the Ten Words to all Israel, but the law code that followed was mediated through Moses (Exod 20:22-23:33, see 24:3-8). Yet Deuteronomy 5:5 could be read as saying that even the Ten Words were mediated through Moses. The sages suggested that possibly God spoke commandments 1-2 to all Israel and 3-10 through Moses (after the 2nd commandment, the person of the verbs and pronouns changes to third from vs. 11 on). There are a few differences in the Ten Words in Deuteronomy from the list in Exodus 5, most notably the rationale for the Sabbath (Exodus 20: because God ceased on the seventh day; Deuteronomy 5: because you were a slave and God freed you). The Ten Words are the beginning of the stipulations of God’s covenant treaty with Israel. The Abrahamic promise is a covenant grant (unconditional, timeless benefits bestowed without condition) while the Sinai revelation is a treaty (conditional, temporal benefits for adherence). The Ten Words can be thought of as headings for all categories of the teachings or as a summary of the rest.
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DEUTERONOMY 5:19 – 6:3 (5:22 – 6:3 in Chr Bibles)
The voice of God, the words and tablets (19), Israel pleads for Moses to receive and pass on God’s words (20-24), God accepts their plea (25-27), God gives the teaching to Moses (28), Moses enjoins Israel to obey the words carefully as covenant stipulations (5:29-30), introduction to the teaching (6:1-3).
The Deuteronomy account includes more detail than the Exodus version about the mediation of Moses, that God authorized Moses to pass on his words to the people. The appearance and voice of God at Sinai overwhelmed the people. In fear they asked Moses to receive and pass down the words. Israel trusted Moses and did not need to receive the teaching directly from God. According to Deuteronomy, God approved of their sense of fear, considering it to be a healthy sense of reverence which should remain part of Israel’s attitude forever when it comes to the words of God. Interestingly, in a famous midrash in Song of Songs Rabbah, the early rabbis to some degree lament this decision. Had the people continued to hear the whole Torah directly from God, according to the midrash, Israel would know the Torah as if it was written on the heart (as in Jeremiah 31). But since Israel was afraid and asked for a mediator, Torah study has become difficult and must be a continual occupation of forgetting and remembering. Yet in Deuteronomy, the act of mediation is not considered a diminishing of the message. It is rather like Yeshua on various occasions when he spoke of later generation who would believe though they had not seen him directly (John 20:29). In the same way, Israelites hearing or reading Torah in later generations are assured that receiving it by transmission, and not by direct witness, is equally blessed. After this, God expresses his wish for his children, that they will listen and receive blessing. This is an example of the strong emphasis on free will in the Bible (Tigay). God’s desire is real, but he does not force his children or control their will to obtain his desire. This is also an emphasis on Torah as a covenant between God and Israel, a treaty with blessings as God’s terms and obedience and Israel’s terms.
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Shema (4), V’Ahavta (5), teach these (6-7), bind them on your person and your dwelling (8-9), do not forget in the time of blessing (10-13), revere only the Lord (14-15), keep covenant so your enemies will be driven out (16-19), a haggadah for the children (20-25).
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 has become the creed of Judaism and vs. 4 is the central idea. In spite of the popularity of the verse, its translation and interpretation are uncertain. One traditional rendering is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Two alternatives that are related to one another in meaning include, “The Lord our God is Lord alone” and “The Lord our God is one Lord” (so Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11, Anchor-Yale Commentary). In Jewish tradition, reciting the oneness of Adonai in the Shema is about accepting his kingship and prioritizing it over all other imperatives. Whether the verse is best understood as “Adonai our God, Adonai is one” or “Adonai our God is Adonai alone,” the intent seems to be prioritizing God over all other claims for ultimate meaning. This is why vs. 5 follows from vs. 4. Since vs. 4 calls for singular allegiance to Adonai, it follows that we should love him with all of our being as vs. 5 says. The surprising thing about vs. 5 is the verb choice: love, not obedience, is emphasized. The verse speaks of making God our highest love. It is not merely that he is the sole deity or the greatest deity. The claim vs. 5 has on us is more than that. Adonai is in, with, and behind our circumstances, an integral part of daily life for us, the love which impels us to exist and choose and live our lives well. One meditation on this topic by an Israelite prophet is Zechariah 14:9. Adonai will, in that future day, be one and his name one. In other words, we will be able to see then what is more difficult to see now: that all things are in God, life is in him, being and existence are in him. There is no separation between the lives we live and the acts of God which brought them about. Our starting point, midpoint, and endpoint of life are all sourced in and moving toward him. In the future day, of which Zechariah speaks, this will be obvious because the hidden Presence will be revealed on earth. The Shema implies multiple truths about us and God: relation (to be Israel’s sole deity), uniqueness (the Lord is incomparable), singularity (the only deity), and unity (all goodness and power are unified in his being). Given that Deuteronomy arranges the laws of Israel in sections ordered by the Ten Commandments, we should not that the Shema is pivotally located. It’s call for love, relation, belief, singular allegiance is paired with the first and greatest commandment. Following the high point of vss. 4-5, Deuteronomy then gives us the basis of Jewish education: household instruction, writing on doors and gates, and even wearing the Lord’s name. These tokens of the words of God could be literal (mezuzah, tefillin) or figurative (keep his words in your mind and actions) or archaic (ancient jewelry and inscriptions). Vss. 14-25 have in view the future generations in the land, never forgetting the covenant blessings and curses and passing the story down to the children. Success and comfort are great tests of faith since self-reliance easily pushes God out of our minds. Remembering and teaching allegiance to the Lord in all generations is what Judaism is all about. The liturgy of the father in vss. 20-25 emphasizes God’s salvation of Israel and Israel’s responsibility to live by the Torah ideals.
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Avoiding contamination of Canaanite culture (1-5), Israel the treasured people (6), election out of love for the Patriarchs (7-8), long blessing and immediate recompense for violation (9-11).
There were things about the Canaanite culture that were not good for the people: a low view of deity, a magical view of life, a low regard for human life, and poor ethics and morality. The Canaanite nations were “much larger” than Israel (another evidence that the numbers of Israelites have become confused through textual transmission). God judged the Canaanite inhabitants with expulsion or, if they stayed and made war, extinction. The Israelites, however, would not follow through on this plan. This present passage urges a policy of destruction or, at the very least, avoidance of Canaanite culture. Israel’s unique calling and election is reiterated from Exodus 19:5-6. Israel is God’s treasure among the nations. But this is not because of size, since Israel is a small nation (more evidence that the number of Israelites in the present text has suffered transmission error). Israel’s position is based on God’s love for and promises to Abraham and his children. God’s love and faithfulness brings benefits through a thousand generations. But his recompense for breaking covenant is “to the face,” meaning the immediate, personal effects of judgment on crops and the national peace. Tigay discusses three biblical ideas of cross-generational retribution that need harmonization: punishing to three or four generations, punishing immediately, and only punishing the sinner and not the children. All three are stated in various biblical texts. The point of obedience, as described here, is not “listen or else” so much as “he loved you and did great things for you, so walk in his ways.”
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DEUTERONOMY 7:12 – 8:10
Blessings of covenant faithfulness to the Lord (12-16), do not fear the Canaanites (17-24), do not covet their idols or wealth (15-26), depend on God completely (8:1-10).
Deuteronomy’s exposition of the laws and statutes of Israel is organized according to the outline of the Ten Commandments (see 5:6-18 or 5:6-21 in a Christian Bible). Today’s portion of Torah is still within the laws related to the first commandment (“I am the Lord your God . . . you shall have no other gods before me”). Moses is applying the essence of this commandment to what Israel is about to undertake: the conquest of Canaan. Although there will be war and danger and strategy, the focus of the leadership is to be on the love relationship with God and not putting too much emphasis on military strength. It is in keeping the stipulations of God’s covenant that Israel will find success in conquest and in agriculture. It is a strange departure from the usual ways of the world, in which obedience, not skill or strength, determine success and abundance. Their secret strength is God’s promise to grant the land. Kings and cities are as nothing before the power of Israel’s Lord. Once in the land, they should not become complacent in blessing, but maintain loyal love. Deuteronomy 8:3 is the poetic height of this theme, namely that bread alone does not sustain the Jewish people, but the power of the words of God’s Torah. Even food is not as important as our relational connection to the Holy One. Bread is our bodily sustenance and the body reminds us of our need automatically. But God is our complete sustenance, filling spirit and body with what we need, though reminders of our need for God are not so automatic. Wisdom teaches us to treat our need for God with the same urgency with which we require food. In terms of Israel’s upcoming conquest, instead of the wealth and sophistication of the Canaanite cities, God offers a bountiful land of agriculture ever supplied through a relationship of trust and covenant love. 8:10 is the basis for the custom of reciting grace after meals. 8:8 lists the seven species of the land, an important remembrance at Tu B’Shevat (the festival of trees).
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DEUTERONOMY 8:11 – 9:3
Don’t forget God in prosperity (11-13), you have depended on God in the desert (14-16), don’t pretend it was your own strength (17-18), forgetting God will destroy you (8:19-20), the task before you is God-sized (9:1-3).
The concern that good times will lead to forgetfulness and a lack of dependence on God is a theme in Deuteronomy (6:11-12; 8:12-14; 11:14-16; 31:20; 32:5 — Tigay). Tigay considers this a wisdom teaching, as in Proverbs 30:8-9, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, But provide me with my daily bread, lest, being sated, I renounce, saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’” The history of Israel’s experience with God is a wisdom lesson for those who read it carefully. God’s work in human history is the basis of present peace and hope. It is an unbroken chain from the covenants with Abraham and Israel at Sinai to the prophets and Yeshua. Knowing this history also gives us confidence for future ordeals, as Israel needs to realize in facing the Canaanites, including the giants (Anakites). Don’t say, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth,” (vs. 17). But say rather, as in the Avinu Malkenu prayer, “We have no good deeds to bring before you.” It is rather God confirming the covenant, loving us first, bringing all things toward healing and redemption, that is our hope. And we neither deserved this blessing nor have a basis to demand that it continue without suffering. So in good times, we should thank God and in hard times we should be faithful. The one constant is God.
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Not Israel’s righteousness, but Canaan’s wickedness (4-5), you are a stiffnecked people (6-7), the provocation of the Golden Calf incident (8-21), other provocations (22), faithlessness at Kadesh-barnea (23), you have always been defiant (24), a summary of Moses’ prayer for defiant Israel (25-29).
That the land was a gift to Israel, not something the people earned or deserved, is a major theme of Deuteronomy (see also 29:3; 31:27: and throughout ch. 32). In other parts of the Bible, the character of Israel in the wilderness is treated from opposite perspectives. Ezekiel reflects on the unfaithfulness of the people during this time, while Jeremiah and Hosea look from the other side at Israel’s faith in the wilderness (Tigay). Life is not one-dimensional and Israel is a people of faith with many shortcomings. As for the Canaanites, their wicked character is listed as the justification for their banishment from the land and even their perishing as a people. It is not Israel’s merit, but Canaan’s depravity which is grounds for such a severe extermination from the hands of God through the war-making of his people. Further, it is because of God’s promises to Abraham (vs. 27) that Israel is allowed to inherit the land in spite of the overall disloyalty of the people. Yet this covenant with Abraham will not guarantee that Israel may remain in the land. To remain they must live in faith and loyalty to the new covenant made at Sinai. Later, in the days of the judges, when Israel finds itself being harassed by other marauding people, this is the same justice which God brought against the Canaanites. Deuteronomy sees justice and the covenant stipulations as a strict system. The land is holy and while God will remain faithful to Israel for the sake of the earlier promise through Abraham, still retribution will be applied. Still, for all Deuteronomy’s talk about a conditional covenant, this is not the end of the matter. God keeps loving and working with Israel even when he conditions are not being met (see especially 4:31 and 30:3-6.
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After Moses’ prayer, God writes on new tablets, reaffirming Israel (1-5), Aaron’s death (6-7), the Levites bear the Ark and receive no part of the land (8-9), God reaffirms the promise of the land (10-11).
The retelling of Israel’s story from Exodus is to define for the second generation who they are and what they are to do. When they get into the land they will need to understand God’s ways and be faithful to the covenant. If God nearly destroyed the first generation, he will also punish this one. God’s way with Israel is blessing and curse. There are several interesting features in this passage. The second tablets are written by God, but carved out by man, whereas the first ones had been made solely by God (in agreement with the first telling in Exodus 24:12; 32:15; 34:4). There is a sense of the loss of glory in the second tablets. In spite of reduced glory and a second set of tablets, the Israelites have been reaffirmed. And because of that reaffirmation, these, their children, are on the edge of the good Land. Israel’s restoration from the great sin of the Golden Calf is based on the prior covenant of love between God and the patriarchs. The law, as we see in numerous passages, is not about a standard of perfectionism which people are unable to keep, but is filled with the free kindness and mercy of God. Note that vss. 6-7 (and perhaps also vss. 8-9) are by a different editor or are incorporated from an existing source, added perhaps in a second layer of editing Deuteronomy (vss. 1-5 and 10-11 are in first person, but vss. 6-7 and 8-9 are in third). Vss. 6-7 mention Aaron’s death, which happened forty years after the Golden Calf. Tigay guesses that Aaron’s death is narrated here to remind the second generation there are consequences for covenant failure. Vss. 8-9 bring the story back to the subject of the Ark, though they also interrupt the flow from vs. 5 into vss. 10-11. The purpose of including vss. 8-9 is to explain how the Ark was handled and how Levi came to have no portion in the land. Thus, vss. 8-9, like many parts of Deuteronomy assumes the reader is already living later than the conquest and is in the land of Israel. (One more indication that Deuteronomy either was not written in Moses’ day or at the very least that comments were added at a later time).
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DEUTERONOMY 10:12 – 11:9
Summary of the essence of God’s national requirement of Israel (12-13), the good fortune of Israel to be elected (14-15), be circumcised in heart in response to this good fortune (16), God’s worthiness to be followed faithfully (10:17-22), your generation knows of God’s acts of judgment (11:1-7), therefore, keep the Torah and receive the covenant blessings in the land (8-9).
Moses’ speech has been remarkably honest, recounting Israel’s past failures and God’s faithfulness. Tigay remarks about the message of 10:12-22, “Your history of rebellion shows that you lack the following qualities, to which you must dedicate yourselves in the future.” The essence of God’s requirement for Israel is all-encompassing: total, unrestrained, sole obedience to his every command along with complete love and service. Considering God’s greatness, Israel is fortunate that his electing favor has turned toward the wayward nation. The people need a change of heart, a circumcision (which will later be promised as a last days renewal in 30:6). God’s nature is worthy of all this call for devotion. The second generation was alive for the judgments on Egypt and in the wilderness. They know God is serious about his covenant and should be equally serious about keeping God’s Torah, his instruction. There could hardly be a more practical and important statement in Torah than what is said here. Vss. 12-13 lay out a way of life and vss. 17-22 explain why God is worthy of such devotion.
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The promised land dependent on rain from God (10-12), benefits for the land and people that come with covenant faithfulness (13-17), teaching and remembering God’s Torah (18-20), enduring in the land in covenant relationship (21).
Vss. 13-21 make up the second paragraph of the Shema, an extended statement of the benefits that come with covenant faithfulness. This is not a promise from heaven that any person in any place and time and history can have abundant crops. It is a specific miraculous promise to a distinct people, Israel. No other nation has a covenant of earthly benefits comparable to the Torah. And sadly, Israel never achieved even half of its potential blessing and we will not until Messiah comes. These benefits to the land are introduced in vss. 10-12 by an observation about agriculture in the Near East. Egypt is a mighty nation because of the Nile River and its flooding allows for irrigation culture and an abundant crop. Canaan is quite different. It is a land dependent on a small amount of rain (much of is semi-arid). The supernatural potential for Canaan to be a paradise is activated by Israel’s clinging the Torah. If the people are loyal in love, God will make the rain abundant and the fruits of the land will overflow. Fertility will not be a blind game of appeasing the deities as in the rest of the Near East. In Sifrei Deuteronomy, the sages said, “People lie on their beds and God makes the rain fall down.” The Deuteronomic emphasis on writing God’s teachings on gates, teaching them to children, and even wearing them is about making the covenant relationship central to daily life. The summary of our duty to God is to love and serve, which has a slightly different meaning than love and obey. To serve suggests a purpose, an active agenda of God on earth, which we are to seek out and follow, becoming his servants in this world. The Jewish tradition for fulfilling the commandments, including the mezuzah, tefillin, and recitation of the Shema, can and should be a reminder of the purpose to love and serve at all times.
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Love and loyalty to the Lord (22), the Lord will drive out the Canaanites (23), every place your feet fall will be yours (24), the inhabitants of the land will be afraid of you (25).
Deuteronomy has made some big statements about the depth of devotion we are to have for God. In 11:22, we get the clearest statement about a unique concept: clinging to God, which is variously translated as cleave, cling, or hold fast. Here it is expressed with the infinitive, l’davakah (to cling). This is the same word as in Genesis 2:24, that a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. Deuteronomy 30:20 says we are to cling to him because “he is your life and length of [your] days.” In Jewish spirituality clinging is known as devekkut and this has been defined as a continual God-consciousness, clinging at every moment to the awareness of him.
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DEUTERONOMY 11:26 – 12:10
The choice is blessing or curse (26-28), the ceremony on Ebal and Gerizim (28-30), observe Torah when you occupy the land (11:31 – 12:1), destroy Canaanite places of worship (2-3), bring all worship to the place God chooses for his Name to dwell (4-7), you must have centralized worship, not as you are doing now in the Transjordan (8-10).
Vss. 29-30 describe a ceremony which will happen when the Israelites are in the land. The ceremony, to take place in Shechem, a town situated between two mountains, gets a second round of notice later in Deuteronomy 27. And the ceremony actually takes place in Joshua 8, after the Israelites have found a foothold in Canaan. What is particularly interesting about the ceremony in Deuteronomy is that it forms bookends surrounding the commandments. After the first description of the ceremony, we find the main block of laws in the book (12:2 – 26:19), which is then followed by the second description of the ceremony. Surprisingly, we know little about the ceremony otherwise, even though we detect that it had a place of importance in the memory of the history of Israel entering the land. There is an altar today on Mt. Eval (where Joshua 8 says it was built) that may have originated with Joshua (I have seen it personally, and found it thrilling). In terms of literary structure, this ceremony quite importantly surround the laws of the book. All that has come up to now has been prelude and exhortation. The first section of laws is, as in the Ten Commandments, about the worship of God and rejection of idolatry. Deuteronomy has a unique requirement: all sacrificial worship must be centralized and not occur at local high places spread throughout the land. The exact status of this law has been a puzzle and one of the most discussed historical issues in the Pentateuch. It was violated afterward with no apparent censure from God by the prophets Samuel and Elijah and by David and Solomon. Some think this law does not originate with Moses, but that it is from the days of Hezekiah and Josiah (since these rulers enforced a central sanctuary law according to Kings and Chronicles). Furthermore, how can Deuteronomy 12:8 refer to the people doing as they please (sacrificing where and how they please) when they are listening to Moses in the wilderness, camped around the Tabernacle, and obeying the law of Leviticus 17 to offer only at the Tabernacle? Deuteronomy 12:8 sounds like an insertion from a later period in Israel’s history and not a statement from the wilderness period. It is one of many examples in the Torah of statements that evidently come from a later period than the fictitious setting of the book. Cumulative evidence like this is what has led to the documentary hypothesis, the idea that multiple strands of Israelite history and law were later joined together into one book which we now know of as the Torah (see Richard Eliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). Vss. 4-7 bring us the idea of a place for God’s Name to dwell on earth. The idea of it is astounding. The Torah does not depict God as far away, the distant emperor or disengaged maker, but rather as immanent, near, a concerned father and a present Lord. God’s presence is evidently everywhere, but is specially made known in places he chooses. As I say in my book, Divine Messiah, the theme of God’s immanence in Torah and prophets is one of the roots of the idea of divine Messiah. God’s nearness is a theme which builds until ultimately, beyond the Hebrew Bible, he comes near in the ultimate manner: as one of us.
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Bring all kinds of offerings and people to the central sanctuary (11-12), changing the Torah to allow secular slaughter (13-16), tithe and sacrifice to be eaten only at the central sanctuary in public feasts (17-19), repetition and expansion of secular slaughter provisions (20-25), repetition of provisions concerning holy offerings (26-27), blessing of following the single sanctuary laws (28).
Deuteronomy insists that all sacrificial worship (but not other kinds of worship) should take place at one sanctuary. As noted in the previous section, this policy was not followed in Israel by Samuel, Elijah, David, or Solomon (at least until the Temple was built). The single sanctuary law seems to promote the unity of all Israel, as the people will gather for feasts and bring all vows, offerings, and tithes to one place for the purpose of rejoicing together as a community. Vs. 15 represents a change in Torah. Whereas Leviticus 17:3-4 had required all slaughter to occur at the sanctuary (in the days when Israel was camped around it), Deuteronomy represents the new situation of Israel entering the land. People will be too far away to limit slaughter to the sanctuary, so the Torah is changed. Secular slaughter will now be permitted anywhere as long as the blood is poured out into the earth. Yet sacred slaughter and all vows and regular tithes are still due at the one sanctuary where God chooses to place his Name. The public feasts of Israel require only males to attend (Deut 16:16), but children and women normally came as well (“your sons and daughters”). The purpose of the feasts is rejoicing and sharing the abundance as a community so that Levites, slaves, and the poor (see 14:29) will also have plenty. Vss. 20-25 expand on the new law of secular slaughter, adding some more reasons for the change. God is about the enlarge the territory and so the ways of the smaller community will need to change. Animal slaughtering will no longer be only in the context of peace offerings and worship. But the older restrictions on holy things (vows, offerings, tithes, blood) continue as before. Israel in this ideal system will be a large community, spread out, coming together three times a year in unity with rejoicing to the place of God’s Presence.
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DEUTERONOMY 12:29 – 13:19 (13:18 in Chr Bibles)
Avoid Canaanite methods of worship and do not worship the Lord in this way (12:29 – 13:1), a prophet who tries to seduce the public to idolatry (2-6), a close relative or friend who tries to seduce one privately to idolatry (7-12), a that has gone idolatrous (13-19).
Deuteronomy is concerned with Israelites picking up Canaanite practices, the most obscene of which is child sacrifice. The people of Israel evidently abhor this practice already and it is used as an example of Canaanite degradation. A relief painting in Egypt from the 13th century BCE shows Canaanites dropping dead children, who had possibly been sacrificed, over the walls in an Egyptian siege (Tigay). Child sacrifice is known from other ancient cultures, as for example in The Iliad, where Agamemnon offers one of his daughters to the sea-god to ensure safe sailing for his army. A more complete list of Canaanite practices is found in 18:10-11 (sorcery, divination, and necromancy). This general warning about Canaanite customs is followed by a three-fold case law: a prophet seducing the public to foreign gods, a near relative or friend influencing a private individual toward idolatry, and a whole town already gone over to idol worship. Remarkably, Deuteronomy says that God might allow a prophet to succeed at false signs to test the people. Indeed, some texts in the former prophets (such as Kings) mention lying spirits sent from God to false prophets. Note that the calls for execution may sound here as if they occur without a court, but Deuteronomy 17:6-7 clarify that a court case is presumed. If a whole town goes over to idolatry, they are to be put under the ban (see 20:16-17). There is a stark contrast between this anti-idolatry law of Deuteronomy and what actually happened in history, as Israel became saturated with idolatry from the earliest days in the land until after the exile.
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Holiness in mourning practices (1-2), holiness in diet (3-21).
In keeping with the teaching that Israel should be different from the Canaanites (see last section, 12:29 – 13:19) and reflecting the second commandment (no sculptured images in worship), this section details practices in Israel which must differ from the Canaanites. Canaanite and similar cultures engaged in fearful practices of mourning. Death was feared as a portal for demonic powers which stopped up wombs, made crops die in the field, and wrought havoc in the life of the people. But Israel was to believe that God is in control of life and death. Mourning should be restrained, not featuring excessive rituals of self-mutilation. The people, a priestly people (the text says children of the Lord, chosen, a treasured people) must show by their practice that they trust in God’s power over death. The other nations will see Israel’s calm and know that God is real. The dietary restrictions of Israel are part of the clean/unclean laws (Lev 11-15, Num 19). The purpose of all these laws is to show that God is about life and not death. Restricting Israel’s diet to a small number of species limits the killing of animals in the land (see Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus for more). There is no hygienic reason for the laws (pig-eating gentiles do not live shorter lives). God’s commands do not have to come from reason, but are revelation (though they are not counter to reason). 14:21 is important for understanding the authority of Torah over Israelites and non-Israelites. The command not to eat nevelah and trefah (meat found dead, animals found torn by other beasts) only applies to Israelites. The resident alien (stranger, sojourner, ger) may eat this form of unclean meat, but the Israelite cannot sell it to him/her (because the resident alien must be looked out for and cared for). To a foreigner, however, such meat may even be sold. This verse is a good clarification helping clear up confusion found in some modern theologies, which insist the Torah laws were the same for all people and not given specifically to the Israelites.
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The festival tithe (22-23), converting tithes to money (24-26), sharing the festival tithe with the Levite (27), third year tithe donated in towns to Levites and needy (28-29).
The tithe laws represent one of the greatest puzzles in all of the Torah. How many tithes are there and can we really harmonize them into one system? The tithe of Numbers 18:21-32 is to be given to the Levites. This tithe in Deuteronomy is to be consumed at the Temple at festivals (Deut 14:22-27). A third year tithe is to be kept in towns and donated to the Levites, resident aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut 14:28-29). It is unclear whether this third year tithe is in addition to the festival one or in place of it. Is Deuteronomy assuming the tithe of Numbers 18 already and adding a second tithe, the festival tithe, to it? Leviticus 27:30-33 says that a fifth must be added to the tithe if it is exchanged for money whereas Deuteronomy 14:25 does not mention any penalty. Deuteronomy 14:27 says “you shall not neglect the Levite,” but this seems to ignore Numbers 18:21 in which Levites already receive the whole tithe. The rabbis call the Numbers 18 tithe (and Leviticus 27:30-33) the “first tithe” and Deuteronomy 14:22-29 the “second tithe.” They interpret the tithes as following a seven-year pattern, since there were no crops in seventh years. The laying aside of a tithe in “third years” (meaning the third and sixth year of every seven-year cycle) is not a third tithe, in rabbinic interpretation, but a replacement for the festival tithe. Many interpreters see the tithe instructions of Deuteronomy 14 as a new law from later in Israel’s history, replacing the earlier tithe laws of Numbers and Leviticus. In this way of reading the development of tithe laws, the Deuteronomy tithe is part of a reform from many sanctuaries spread through the land to one central sanctuary. If this is true, Deuteronomy is removing the tithe to the Levites from Numbers and replacing it with a tithe for festivals and the poor. Whether we follow the harmonious reading of the rabbis or the legal-reform reading of many other scholars, the Deuteronomy tithe is a beautiful thing. It redistributes crops and livestock in three annual festivals so that all the people share alike in the blessing of the land and it provides for the poor a system of public assistance.
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Remission of debts in Sabbath years (1-3), the ideal of obedience and lack of poverty in the land (4-6), just practices to care for the needy (7-11), release of indentured servants (12-15), the servant who remains (16-17), do not begrudge a servant’s freedom right (18).
The remission of debts in the Sabbath years is new to Deuteronomy. Exodus says only that the land must be rested (23:11) and indentured servants released (21:2, but is this in Sabbath years or in any year after a servant has served six?). Leviticus 25 says the land must be rested in Sabbath years and in Jubilee years property is reverted to the clans, land is rested, and indentured servants are freed (not clear how this differs from freeing them in Sabbath years). The seeming incompatibility of the regulations for Sabbath and Jubilee years is one more piece of evidence that the Torah is not one book, but several, which were combined after the exile (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, for the theory that Ezra the scribe collated the Torah). Now, in Deuteronomy, we have something new: a command to release debts. Some feel this remission of debts made sense in rather small agricultural loans, but not in larger business loans which became the norm as Israel’s economy grew. Hillel declared a new tradition, the prosbul, which made a way to get around the written law so that business loans could be made beyond seven years (or no lending would be possible). It is also possible that release of loans meant a deferral of payments — not canceling the debt — and assumed payments would resume in the eighth year. If, however, this lesser “release of debts” was the original intention, memory of it has been lost. Interestingly, css. 4-6 seem to be at odds with vs. 11, “there shall be no needy among you,” vs. “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” There need not be needy in Israel if the people obey (4-6), but disobedience is foretold and there will always be needy people in Israel (11). Vs. 18 — “When you do set him free, do not feel aggrieved” — is interesting, because in it God’s law commands an attitude (Tigay). The one who has been served by an indentured servant is not to covet their service when time comes to free them. Deuteronomy 15 is like a bridge between the real — Israel’s economy which is like other human economies — and the ideal — a world in which God’s economy provides abundance to all and there is no competition for survival. It is one of many areas in which the Torah points to something beyond itself, toward something better. That ideal is expanded upon in the prophets as what may come “in that day” or “at the end of days.”
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DEUTERONOMY 15:19 – 16:17
Firstborn animals (15:19-23), Passover (16:1-8), Shavuot (9-12), Sukkot (13-15), the three pilgrim festivals (16), generosity and sacrifice at festivals (17).
Here we see another case of a difference in the Torah between Deuteronomy and other strands of the Torah. In Richard Friedman’s theory (his version of the documentary hypothesis) the author of Deuteronomy is Baruch, scribe of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s family was from an alternate line of priests (not from Zadok, but from the deposed line of Abiathar). It is the latest of the strands of Torah that were later combined by Ezra into one book. In Numbers 18:15-18, from the Priestly strand that existed before Torah was made into a book, the law of firstborn animals is different. They were donated to the priests as food. Here in Deuteronomy they are to be shared at the feasts in Jerusalem, unless they are blemished in which case they are to be eaten in the towns where Israelites lived. Deuteronomy 12:17-18 also lists firstborn as among the items shared by the people and the priest, Levites, and others at the festive temple meals. The Jewish traditional harmonization is that Deuteronomy 15:20 refers to the priest’s family eating the firstborn animals and not the farmer’s family. This is an attempt to overlook the plain meaning of the text to serve an agenda, the agenda of regarding the Torah as a unified book, when it is clear the “you” being referred to is all Israel. Tigay’s commentary (The JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy) also discusses some potential disagreements between Deuteronomy on the festivals and earlier texts (such as whether the Passover is to be roasted or boiled). Perhaps the laws varied or were understood differently by various priestly groups, which raises the question: how did the writers of Torah know the laws? One possibility is that some ancient and vague instructions were handed down by Moses and were variously interpreted by the later priests. In spite of some difficulties in understanding details, the main point is that the Israelites will gather three times a year at the central place of worship, appearing before God’s Presence, and sharing festival meals in an ideal community of generosity and abundance. The Torah presents a beautiful picture of a community of people cooperating to bring light into the world, sharing abundance with each other, and making joy at the place where God’s Presence touches the human realm.
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DEUTERONOMY 16:18 – 17:13
Judges and officials in every town (18-20), three worship prohibitions (16:21 – 17:1), procedure for capital punishment for apostates (2-7), the Israelite high court (8-13).
In the wilderness, seventy judges heard lower cases and only the most important came to Moses. The wilderness legal system was centralized because the tribes were all together in one place. Once in the land, cases would need to be heard in the city gates of every town, as was the custom in other cultures. Therefore, the people required a new system of judges and officials in every town. This justice system in the Torah was guided by three principles: fairness, impartiality, and the prohibition of bribes. 16:20 is a classic verse, one of the sayings in Torah that has come to define the Jewish ethos: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” In modern times especially this has been a call to Jewish people to seek equity for the oppressed and it engages the Jewish imagination about the world to come where there will be no harm or lack. 16:21 – 17:1 is probably here because of its relationship to 17:2-7 (Tigay). In other words, the appointing of judges led to an example of dealing with apostasy (17:2-7) and apostasy led to a clarification of several cultic prohibitions (16:21 – 17:1). The patriarchs and Moses and Joshua used pillars (and Abraham a sacred tree), but this would have to be prohibited in general because it would lead people to idolatry. 17:8-13 establishes a high court of judges and priests. Their jurisdiction is specifically over difficult cases with bloodshed, legal disputes, and violence as examples. This is the text used as the basis for the formulation of a Sanhedrin in Jewish tradition. The authority of the sages to lay down rulings about how to follow Torah’s commandments and prohibitions is also derived from this. Israel is to follow the rulings of its officials without deviating to the right or left. The Torah recognizes that its commandments cover only generalities and the courts and sages would rule on specific customs and procedures. In other words, from the written Torah there is also a need to develop a tradition which fills in specific methods and regulations to make the general commandments practically applicable. This is the basis of authority for the Jewish halakhah, the principles for living God’s commandments from day to day in a practical manner.
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Choosing a king (14-15), the king forbidden to multiply horses or wives (16-17), the king’s relationship to Torah (18-20).
According to one view, God was opposed to the institution of kingship in Israel. A hasty reading of 1 Samuel can lend this view credibility. Yet it was not the idea of kingship that God opposed in the days of Samuel. It was the a lack of faith and repentance in Israel that angered God. The people sought to cover up their problems with a king instead of realizing the root of their problem was breaking covenant with God the true king. Kingship is legislated in Torah, which permits a king but restricts his authority and defines royal power as subordinate to God’s unlimited sovereignty. The king will not rely on horses and chariots. He will rely on God’s covenant, of which he will have his own copy (perhaps referring just to Deuteronomy) and will read it often. He will not, as other kings, multiply wives and make alliances with other rulers and nations through the typical harem of oriental kings. These restrictions on kingship give the lie to the claim that the kings of Judah had Deuteronomy written for them to authorize their rule. Some law-codes from the Ancient Near East are, in fact, justifications using divine religion to authenticate human kingship. But not Israel’s law-code, in which the king is subjected, not to the priests, but to God. The ideal king, reads the Torah, walks in it, views God as the higher authority, and is not haughty toward the people.
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No inheritance for Levites (1-2), the due of the priests (3-4), the reason for the priestly dues (5).
Understanding the roles of Levites and priests and their relationship to each other in the Torah is a puzzle. There are some discrepancies between Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy on specific points and on the general issue of who is a priest. Let’s consider first some of the specific discrepancies and then the general one. In Leviticus 7:31-34 the portion donated by the offerer (the breast and right thigh of all peace offerings) is for the priests and only the priests. Here in Deuteronomy 18, we read that the shoulder, cheek, and stomach from every sacrifice are the priestly portion and that they are given to “all the tribe of Levi.” The medieval Jewish commentators attempt to resolve this by saying Deuteronomy refers to secular slaughter and Leviticus to offerings. This resolution is impossible as the word for “sacrifice” in vs. 3 is always used of peace offerings and never for secular slaughter. Plus it would be impossible to bring parts of meat from towns far from the Temple as dues for the priests (Tigay). We are faced with either a change in Torah (was Deuteronomy updated in later times, written later than Leviticus?) or a discrepancy. Some would argue that this change occurred early, in moving from the wilderness encampment where all slaughter is at the sanctuary to preparing for living in the land, where secular slaughter will happen in towns and the priests will lose some income. Then there is the matter of the general discrepancy between Leviticus-Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Leviticus-Numbers, only the sons of Aaron are priests while the rest of the Levites are a lower order of clergy assisting the priests. Deuteronomy says “Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi.” Never in Deuteronomy do we read of priests being “sons of Aaron.” In Leviticus 7:31-34 the dues from the offerings go to the priests, but in Deuteronomy to all the Levites. This notion of all Levites being priests was not followed in the later days of Israel, but rather the Leviticus-Numbers distinction between Levites and priests was maintained. Further, starting in the days of David and Solomon, the Levites became musicians and Temple guards since their ancient role as carriers of holy objects was no longer necessary (making the laws of Numbers 3-4 obsolete). Deuteronomy’s depiction of all the Levites as priests is a historical mystery.
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All Levites may serve and share in the Temple dues (6-8), all forms of magic forbidden (9-13).
Vss. 6-8 complete the thought of vss. 1-5 about Levites, priests, and their dues. Some Levites remained in towns (hence the third tithe of Deut 14:29 is shared with Levites in the towns) and functioned there in some way. Though forbidden to offer sacrifices outside of the central Temple, Levites could lead in other ways, teaching the Torah and perhaps even leading in prayer or worship ceremonies without sacrifices. Yet every Levite had the right to come to the Temple and to be supported through the tithes and other dues. This passage does not distinguish the differences between the portions of the Levites and priests, so it seems Deuteronomy is based on a different notion of who may serve as a priest. In the Second Temple, the priesthood followed the laws in Leviticus-Numbers and was restricted to the family of Aaron. We are not aware of any age in which all the Levites functioned as priests the way Deuteronomy reads. Vss. 9-13 forbid all forms of magic. The worldview of magic brings deity down, believing that the highest power is a force above nature and above the gods. This force is what gods tap into, giving them their abilities. Certain skilled human beings can tap into it as well, even at times being able to manipulate or harm the gods with it. The words used here to describe various kinds of magic include: child sacrificer, augur, soothsayer, diviner, sorcerer, spellcaster, and necromancer. Practices of magic included things like reading the organs of dissected animals, keeping books of omens to predict the future, raising dead spirits to obtain information, and using of incantations (also known as spells). Rather than relying on any of these arts, the Israelites were to believe in providence (the hand of God guiding history) and trust in his prophets.
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DEUTERONOMY 18:14 – 19:13
Instead of soothsayers, God will raise up a prophet like me (14-15), the prophet carries God’s words to the people (16-19), false prophets (18:20-22), cities of refuge (19:1-7), adding more refuge cities later (8-10), intentional murder (11-13).
Although the prophet passage has messianic overtones and a later history (see the gospels) of being interpreted about one particular prophet like Moses (i.e., Messiah), it is easy to see this passage is about the institution of prophecy in general. What has led to the Prophet-Messiah interpretation is the singular noun, prophet, in vs. 15. Yet that this singular prophet is a class of people and not one individual is obvious from the contrast between vss. 14 and 15: instead of soothsayers and augurs, I will provide for you in the land a prophet to consult. The prophet, as a class, is Israel’s replacement for the magical practitioners who are the mainstay of pagan advisors. Prophets would demonstrate their relationship with God by true foretellings (such as Samuel foretelling where to find lost animals or Micaiah foretelling how Ahab would die (Tigay). As to the idea of one particular prophet like Moses, this idea seems to come from the notion of an ideal prophet. There are many prophets, but one ultimate prophet would come. The gospel of John uses Deuteronomy 18 extensively, with Yeshua describing himself as saying “only what my Father shows me” and so on. The laws of refuge cities and murder are part of the holiness of the land (see Exodus 21:13-14; Numbers 35:9-34). A near relative of one killed in an accident or murder would avenge their death in those days. For unintentional killings, God told them to establish asylum cities where avengers were not allowed to come. As for a murderer, the court would sentence and the near relative would lead the way in carrying out the sentence. The asylum laws were to prevent innocent bloodshed that would occur in typical vengeance customs.
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DEUTERONOMY 19:14 – 20:9
The boundary marker as law (14), witnesses and penalty for false testimony (19:15-21), trust in the Lord in battle (20:1), the priest’s war speech (2-4), those who may return before war (5-9).
Tigay observes that this section (19:1 – 21:9) is about judicial and military matters, following up on the previous section (16:18 – 18:22) on civil and religious authorities. The ancient law of the boundary marker (found also in Proverbs 27:17 and other ancient law codes) perhaps is placed here because it is a judicial matter and because vss. 3 and 8 both have the word for boundary in them (Tigay). The laws about witnesses (minimum of two to convict, penalty for false testimony) are consistent with God’s emphasis on justice (see 16:20). The laws of warfare reflect the principle that Israel’s trust is to be in God’s power. Therefore, self-reliance is regarded as contrary to faith. There is a curious balance: on the one hand, God uses people in spite of the fact that he could simply do everything from heaven. On the other, he emphasizes that the work of the people is faith, not self-reliance. The balance between human involvement and divine involvement is not passivity. It is an active faith. There is a place for things like skill, wisdom, and excellence. Yet the limitations of human ability are met by the unlimited potential of God, who takes human effort beyond itself. In other words, our very best cannot guarantee peace, victory, or abundance, but when there is a divine promise of covenant blessing humanity exceed the normal limitations of this present world. Israel’s promises are not natural, but supernatural and we find later in the prophets that they ultimately point to a messianic future on earth.
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DEUTERONOMY 20:10 – 21:9
Rules of war outside the land (10-14), rules of total destruction in war in the land (15-18), protection of trees (20:19-20), ritual for unsolved murder (21:1-9).
It is not stated, but assumed, that the war with a town outside of the land is for a just reason. If the town surrenders, it must serve Israel. This refers to the continuing payment of tribute, a custom reflected many times in biblical stories (it does not mean slavery). In the land, however, God has (allegedly) doomed all who do not flee before Israel to total destruction, even the women and children. This genocidal perspective in Deuteronomy is, of course, completely irreconcilable with its depiction of God as a loving father of Israel and all the other peoples of the world. It is beyond difficult to excuse this sort of theme in the Torah and pretend that it is God’s will. For a believing perspective that takes seriously the need to protest against evil thoughts in scriptural tradition, read Kenton L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word. Meanwhile, the ritual for unsolved murder (breaking the neck of a cow over a stream, having elders wash hands over the dead animal, eschewing oaths of innocence) is among the strangest in all of Torah. The killing of the cow is not a sacrifice (no blood, no priest). It seems rather to be a substitute for the death of the murderer, so that ritually a death has been answered with death. By the time of the first century CE, the ritual for unsolved murder in the land was abolished, because murder became too common (rabbinic sources, Tigay). Many of the commandments in Torah could only work in an ideal setting, in a time when God’s hand rules over the land and human rulers are in the background. This ideal did not last long and was never fully expressed. The rule of human empires and the process of secularization quickly erased any hope of the ideals of Torah from being realized in this age. Beneath the strangeness, even arcane rituals like the breaking of a heifer’s neck over a stream, is a longing from ancient times for a world where murder does not happen.
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The captive war-bride (10-14), protecting the rights of the firstborn in a polygamous marriage (15-17), legislating the execution of insubordinate sons (18-21).
The bride captured in war could not be from one of the Canaanite women in the land (see 20:10-18), as such intermarriage was forbidden. Yet in other wars, in which the people insisted on fighting, God commanded Israel to kill all the men of fighting age and to let the children and women live. It was common for women of conquered areas to be raped or taken as concubines in the culture of that time (and rape is still a horror of war today). The Torah seeks to overcome social evils generally by regulating them, reducing the injustice and harm, and ultimately by teaching a better way. Therefore, the practice of taking women during wartime is restricted by a list of requirements. Torah requires that the women be permitted time to grieve. The rabbis suggested that the cutting of hair and trimming nails was to make the war-bride unattractive and to reduce the impulses of lust as an incentive to make war and capture women. It certainly is not permitted to take a woman in the lust of the battle. In the end, we can say that this Torah law is inadequate, that allowing Israelites to kidnap women and turn them into wives is still barbaric. It seems to be an example of God reforming culture in stages, rather than giving a law which would be too advanced for the culture. After dealing with war brides, Torah turns to ramifications of polygamous marriages. Custom dictated a double share of the inheritance for firstborn sons. Jealousy and rivalry between wives and sets of children led to acts of violence in such a culture. Therefore Torah says the man must not give preference to one wife over the other, but count as firstborn the actual firstborn son. In the third section, the customary treatment of rebellious sons is the issue. In the Ancient Near East the options for treatment of such a child included enslavement, disinheritance, or even mutilation (Tigay). Even in Roman culture, many centuries later than Torah, a father had the right to harm or even kill his own family (patria potestas). Genesis 38:24 implies that Judah had such a power over Tamar. The Torah legislates this power, requiring that the rebellious child be brought to the town elders and that the men of the town carry out the penalty (perhaps to avoid hasty and angry killings). The rabbis say this law was for illustration only (to put fear of parents into children) and not meant to be carried out. One would have to prove, they say, that the child was un-reformable. It is important to understand that the Torah is a real legislation for a real people in history. Some things permitted in Torah are also undermined by the weightier principles of Torah (war-brides, slaves). Thus, those who follow Torah would realize in time that loving one’s neighbor cancels the permission of Torah for things like owning slaves and taking war-brides.
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DEUTERONOMY 21:22 – 22:7
The executed man on the tree (21:22-23), obligations to your neighbor (22:1-4), cross-dressing (5), a mother bird and its young (6-7).
Hanging a dead body, which was killed by the sword or stoning, on a stake or a tree was a kind of warning to others who might consider evil or further punishment of the dead by shaming (see Numb 25:4). Death is defilement in God’s symbolic system (Numb 19:11-20). Un-purified corpse contamination even defiles — through the air, as it were — God’s sanctuary (Numb 19:13, 20). The custom of displaying the dead bodies of the condemned was to be checked by the requirement to keep the land pure, so that the hanging display could last only one day. God is about life, not death. This is the basis for the custom of burial of all dead persons within 24 hours in Judaism. Regarding the obligations one has to his neighbor, some have insisted that the Torah requires this only between fellow Jews, but Exodus 23:4-5 requires it even for enemies. The Torah requires people to care for one another and not look to gain from another’s misfortune. Yeshua regarded this love for neighbor as second only to love for God. The exact custom forbidden by 22:5 is unknown, as we have too little literature from the time to know what cross-dressing might have represented in ancient cultures. The principle would seem to be respecting the differentiations God has made between the sexes and upholding them culturally. The law of the mother and its young compares with Leviticus 22:28. The promise of long life, when it was taken as a blessing for any righteous person who followed this law, was a stumbling block to faith (for the righteous do not always have long life). Abravanel saw a wiser interpretation: preserving a species of animal would bring long life by conserving the animal populations in the land.
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DEUTERONOMY 22:8 – 23:7 (6 in Chr Bibles)
Parapet on a roof (8), forbidden combinations (9-11), tzit-tzit (fringes, 12), adjudicating cases of premarital infidelity (22:13-29), forbidden relationship: father’s ex-wife (23:1 (22:30 in Chr Bibles), forbidden relationship: eunuchs and mamzers in the Assembly (2-3(1-2 in Chr Bibles)), forbidden relationship: Ammonites and Moabites in the Assembly (4-7(3-6 in Chr Bibles)).
The larger section in which these laws are contained (21:10 – 25:19) is about civil and domestic issues. The requirement of a parapet on the flat roofs of Israelite houses (a safety measure which is a principle beyond the case of a roof), the forbidden combinations of planting and weaving, and the requirement of fringes on Israelite garments close out a section of domestic matters (22:1-12). Laws about judging disputes over marital chastity issues begins a section on marital and sexual conduct (22:13-29). If a man makes a false accusation against his bride, claiming in their wedding night that she is not a virgin, his cruel act is punishable by whipping and a fine. On the other hand, lacking evidence of virginity on her wedding night, a woman can be executed by stoning. Yet the rabbis interpreted this case as requiring a high level of proof, with witnesses, and even then the woman would first get a warning and would have to engage in sex again before being stoned (Rashi). In cases of adultery, both the man and woman are liable to execution (which has bearing on the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8). The laws forbidding eunuchs, mamzers (see below), Ammonites, and Moabites in the Assembly is a separate section whose subject is forbidden relationships. 23:2-7(1-6 in Chr Bibles) is a difficult passage with many unanswered questions. What does it mean to be banned from the Assembly? Tigay argues this means the body of citizens who may intermarry and who have a say in the political process. It does not mean being banned from the Temple worship (since Deuteronomy uses different language for the Temple). Furthermore, the book of Ruth and Isaiah 56 seem to disagree with a notion of banning foreigners. And, after all these considerations, what does it mean that the ban on them is “to the tenth generation”? A similar ambiguity characterizes the ban on mamzers. What exactly is a mamzer? The meaning of the word is far from certain, but probably (traditionally) it means a child of a forbidden union such as incest (forbidden unions are listed in Leviticus 18). Rabbinic law treats these issues with restraint and justice (for example, the standards for proving someone is a mamzer is so high, practically speaking no one is judged to be a mamzer today in most Jewish courts). It is important to note that Deuteronomy does not seem to have the last word on these matters. The case of Ruth contradicts the ban in Deuteronomy, so much so that rabbinic sages were led to a strained harmonization (that the text bans a Moabite but not a Moabitess).
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DEUTERONOMY 23:8-24 (7-23 in Chr Bibles)
Edomites and Egyptians accepted in third generation (8-9), increased purity regulations for the military camp (10-15), sanctuary for foreign slaves (16-17), forbidding prostitution (18-19), prohibition on lending at interest (20-21), sanctity and urgency of vows (22-24).
Vss. 8-9 finish the earlier section about forbidden people in the Assembly. Tigay notes that even Ammonites and Moabites apparently could live as resident aliens in the land. With Edomites and Egyptians, the idea seems to be that after dwelling as aliens for three generations, they could be accepted into the Assembly of Israel (intermarriage was then possible). In 23:10 a new section starts (ending with 25:19), the final section of laws. They are miscellaneous in nature with their common theme being civil and domestic issues. In a military camp (vss. 10-15) the regulations for ritual purity are in some ways increased, as was the case with Israel in the wilderness. Vs. 14 is the only passage in Torah that hints excrement is impure (though the thought returns in Ezekiel). We see in vss. 16-17 a difference between Israel and the nations regarding slavery. Other Near Eastern lawcodes demanded that their neighboring states return escaped slaves whereas Israel was forbidden to return them to slavery (Tigay). Regarding vs. 19, prostitutes sometimes were paid with animals, and such an animal would be unfit to offer in the Temple. The “pay of a dog” phrase may refer to something we are no longer aware of or it may be a phrase for the pay of a male prostitute. The prohibition of lending at interest (vss. 20-21) works only in a society designed and blessed by God, an agrarian economy in which obedience to the divine will guaranteed abundant crops. But apart from the Torah ideal, a people whose sustenance comes from faith and not from a market economy, it is impossible to maintain a ban on lending and borrowing. Capitalism and other economic systems are part of the reality of this present world, but the Torah hints at something better, to be realized in the world to come. Vows (vss. 22-24) are holy, and the offerings promised were to be brought quickly, probably meaning at the next festival at the Temple.
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DEUTERONOMY 23:25 – 24:4 (23:24 in Chr Bibles)
The right of travelers to pick and eat (23:25-26), forbidden remarriage (24:1-4).
The right to pick and eat from fields when passing through was later restricted in rabbinic law, so that only workers in the vineyard or field could pick and eat (Tigay). The law of divorce and remarriage in 24:1-4 assumes first that divorce was already a custom of the people and also that all initiative was the husband’s (in their culture a woman could not divorce). Torah only barely touches on parameters or requirements for divorce in the phrase “has found some indecency in her.” The main sentence is interrupted by a long clause, but can be isolated as follows: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her . . . then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife.” What is the intent of this law? It would seem there are two main purposes. First, a man must give his wife a get (bill of divorcement) rendering her free to remarry. He may not make her a de facto widow by divorcing her. Second, a man may not return to a wife if she has taken another man in the interim. The purpose would seem to be to avoid all comfort with adultery and swapping sexual partners (Tigay). In a highly patriarchal (man-centered) culture, this law is a step in the direction of protecting women by limiting a man’s power to put a woman away. It is a reminder that Torah is time-bound, given to a specific people in a specific place in history. The Torah sets trajectories for change in the law over time. It permitted some things (owning foreign slaves, war-brides) which surely would not be permitted over time as the weightier laws of Torah changed society. Likewise the divorce law here requires change over time, so that women would have a right to initiate a divorce in certain conditions. Recommended reading: David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Instone-Brewer is a Christian scholar of rabbinics as well as a pastor).
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Deferral for the newly married (5), prohibition on ruinous collateral (6), kidnapping (7), scale disease (8-9), justice in handling unpaid debts (10-13).
These rather miscellaneous laws continue throughout this section (23:10- 25:19), part of a larger section on domestic and civil issues (21:10 – 25:19). The deferral from war for newly married is different than in 20:6-8 in that this is protection for the happiness of the bride (Tigay). Collateral is limited by justice in dealing with loans, so that a millstone cannot be taken (6), nor a person’s nightclothes (12, as per Exodus 22:25-26, sometimes night garments were taken as pledge). The command about scale disease does not repeat all the priestly legislation of Leviticus 13-14, but simply requires that the priestly regulations be followed.
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DEUTERONOMY 24:14 – 25:19
Prompt payment of wages (14-15), prohibition of punishing trans-generationally (16), protecting aliens, widows, and the fatherless (17-18), gleanings for the poor (24:19-22), limits on corporal punishment (25:1-3), do not muzzle an ox (4), levirate marriage (5-10), punishment for seizing the genitals (11-12), honest weights (13-16), Amalekites under permanent ban (17-19).
The list of miscellaneous civil and domestic laws continues. The concern in most of these is justice, as the core principle in Torah for dealings between people is justice, love, and mercy. The prohibition against muzzling a working ox is no doubt a larger principle of just treatment of animals and, equally, protection of human workers and their rights. The levirate marriage laws (brother of a deceased man should marry the widow and give children to his brother’s line) is part of the economic system of agrarian family holdings and preserves land and wealth for the descendants. It also preserves the name of a man in Israel after death, a concept Tigay suggests involves belief in an afterlife and the continuing need for honor after death. Could such a marriage be required if the brother already has a wife (resulting in a requirement of polygamy in such cases)? The fact that the brothers lived together before one died suggests that the one who assumes the duty to marry the widow may have been unmarried, but specifics about such cases are not given in written Torah (one of many examples in which the priests and sages would have to fill in the gaps of the law). Perhaps the most troubling law is the requirement of cutting off the hand of a woman who seizes a man’s genitals (25:11-12). The punishment seems heavy compared to the crime. The sages felt so also and considered the cutting off symbolic of a fine.
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